New Chanukah Insights

In past years, I’ve thought (and written) a lot about the conflict between the Greek approach to life as it opposed our ancestors’.  Although much richer in its reality, it represents to us the exclusively empirical approach which, in today’s western societies, has very much degenerated to obsession with the superficial.  The Torah’s tradition, on the other hand, while acknowledging the validity of empirical reality also recognizes the reality of the intuitive, spiritual realm, largely through the ongoing engagement with Talmud which forces the student to think linearly and laterally, empirically and intuitively, practically and inspired, all simultaneously.

Rather than merely rehashing those thoughts, both to myself and in my writing, once again, as we are often and dangerously tempted with yearly cycles of observances, I tried to bring it a little farther along this year.  I think I must be getting somewhere with these thoughts since I’m not able to resolve them.  Also, it’s a little embarrassing since my ideas take many fewer words than this introduction….  But if you have any ideas or comments, I want to specially invite you to use the comment form.

It seems that the realm of the empirical reveals the concept of Absolute while the intuitive necessitates the existence of Relative.  Both from that idea and from observing “real life”, it appears obvious to me that both relatives and absolutes always exist.  (It’s ironic, but very understandable how, in revolt against the contemporary superficial world view, which promotes absolutist thinking, those who rebel embrace the other absurd and untenable extreme of “absolute” relativism, that there is no “objective” reality but that all is “narrative” and equally-valid opinions.)

An important challenge, therefore, is to identify which propositions are, in fact, absolute and which are relative ones.  Of course, a paradox immediately emerges from this–is it possible to create an empirical, i.e. absolute definition of Absolute, thus defining as Relative everything that isn’t Absolute?

Actually, this is a critical question in contemporary Judaism.  Is there any Absolute other than God?  And are there any boundaries to Jewish practice?  How far does Relativism extend, remembering the imperative (absolute?) that each neshama, soul, is unique and, thus, has a unique mandate and a unique approach to God.  The answer seems that there is a limited range of scope in which interpretations can be, relative to the absolute of God Himself, perhaps scaled at 70 (faces of Torah, nations, languages), as discussed in a previous article, or perhaps a much larger, but still finite one, the 600,000 souls present at Sinai.

Each year we face the same battle our ancestors did, to resist the stagnation of a fully empirical mind.  Merely pulling in the opposite direction, insisting on a fully relative world, is equally wrong and a waste of time.  Perhaps the flames of our candles, the only actual mitzva of Chanukah, provide the hint.  They rise up, lifting off but not quite detaching, from the wick.

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6 Responses to New Chanukah Insights

  1. Ed Pearlman says:

    God is absolute, in the same sense that humanity is absolute, and so is the Earth. Debating, for example, whether humanity exists is absurd and pointless. Same with debating the existence of God. What is left to us is to refine our definition of God, to create meaning and identify and establish relationships with God, with humanity, and with Earth.

  2. I agree that debates on the existence of a number of things is absurd and pointless. Nonetheless, challenging the obvious is the nonsense coming out of many academic institutions, including our own alma mater.
    As you imply, it wastes time better spend on establishing relationships!
    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  3. Anything that falls within the realm of dualism is inherently relative. Perhaps believing that our dualistic minds can grasp, talk about, or even consider the Absolute is the ultimate (and laughable) stance of the relative ego. Opening to the Absolute is beyond definition, beyond meaning, beyond relationship, beyond all that our dualistic minds can conceive.
    I disagree that debates on the existence of a number of things is absurd and pointless. Our tradition requires that we question, and question everything. But the ego is afraid of contemplating these questions because it might challenge it’s beliefs, its assumed “truths.” Perhaps those truths and beliefs have become the “idols” that we worship and never question. We might need to get those idols out of our Temple, clear it all out, empty every single room. Then, at the light of the great Menorah, examine thoroughly all our assumptions and beliefs before bringing them back to our inner Temple. I suspect that, if we do our work seriously, none of them will be able to stand in the candle light of Truth.

    • I think the Ani Ma’amin of the Rambam has long been misunderstood. It’s not a creed or an acid test. Rather, it a list of realities which are unprovable by logic. Nonetheless, they continue to stand. Therefore, they fall into the realm of belief, rather than reason.
      On the other hand, I don’t think/feel that both within our Jewish tradition and in “objective” reality (and the quotation marks are quite intentional) there is any “proof” that absolute relativism is valid.
      Agreed that there is much in the way of idols that clutter our Temple, but that doesn’t mean that every “vessel” in that Temple is bogus. The challenge, and I’m not sure there even is a systematic way to do it, is to distinguish what is Absolute and what isn’t.

  4. Except, of course, for the sliver of the Absolute which resides in the Relative, i.e. our Neshamot!

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